By BILL CLARKE, Commentary | Published October 4, 2018
“Had I known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”
George Burns on his 98th birthday
I find lots of very good reasons why seniors need to maintain a sense of humor in retirement. As our minds and bodies continue to age, it presents either a cause for doom and gloom or an opportunity to smile and say, “Don’t get all weird about getting older. Our age is merely the number of years the world has been enjoying us!” (Maxine, of cartoon fame, created by John Wagner).
Researchers have found a strong link between humor and laughing and physical and mental health. If you are able to laugh regularly and routinely, it will have a favorable impact on your overall health.
Laughing is universal
According to an article in SeniorHomes.com, “Laughing is universal. You can laugh regardless of your age, ethnic background or state in life. Laughing triggers a number of positive physiological responses: relaxation of the entire body, relieving muscle tension and stress; levels of the stress hormone (cortisol) drop and minimize pain and inflammation; release of endorphins, which are natural substances that make you feel happy and reduce the perception of physical pain; and reduction in blood pressure combined with a moderate increase in the heart rate and improved blood circulation and oxygen intake.
Researchers at the College of William and Mary have found that “a wave of electricity sweeps through” the entire brain just before we laugh. This supports the theory that humor can actually help improve cognitive functioning by activating all parts of the brain simultaneously.
Let’s give it a try: “Our pastor came for a visit. He said at my age I should be thinking about the hereafter. I told him, “Oh, I do it all the time. No matter where I am—in the living room, upstairs, in the kitchen, or down in the basement—I ask myself, “Now, what am I here after?” (a little joke I picked up from everythingzoomer.com).
Science of humor
While the science of humor is a relatively new discipline, research studies on the health benefits of laughter consistently demonstrate a connection between laughing and living longer. Researchers know that laughing lowers blood pressure while increasing blood flow and oxygen intake, which in turn has been linked to a decreased risk of heart attack and stroke.
An article from SeniorHomes.com states, “Laughing simply makes people feel better all over. Laughing also can have an anesthetic-like effect on the body, suppressing physical pain and discomfort following a good laugh.”
The ability to laugh is closely tied to having a positive outlook on life, an important protective factor against several mental health issues like depression and anxiety. A Northwestern University study revealed that patients with advanced COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) who were exposed to humorous videos enjoyed better mental health than study participants who did not view the humorous videos.
Laughing and a positive attitude
Laughing also promotes emotional well-being, helping people maintain a positive outlook and stable mood throughout the day. A positive attitude has been linked to improved resiliency—the ability to cope with stressful situations in spite of obstacles such as sickness, financial stress or the loss of a loved one.
According to findings on the VeryWellMind.com website, “Aside from the health benefits of laughter, having a sense of humor about life’s difficulties can provide a way to bond with others, look at things in a different way, normalize your experience, and keep things from appearing too overwhelming or scary. Properly developed, a good sense of humor can keep people and relationships strong.”
Ken Budd, executive editor of AARP The Magazine, adds this thought, “It’s clear to me that the people who thrive in their later years are the ones who view each day as an opportunity—a positive attitude to learn, to grow, to savor life.”
A great source of humor is the many jokes about getting older. We laugh because it is something that everyone can understand and experience, now or eventually.
I have another one: “Three elderly men were talking about what their grandchildren would be saying about them 50 years from now. The first man said, I would like my grandchildren to say, ‘He was a successful businessman.’ The second man added, I want them to say, ‘He was a loyal family man.’ Then the third man paused and responded, I want them all to say, ‘He certainly looks good for his age!’” (Guy Thomas).
Laughing promotes good health
While laughing has been shown to help prevent the onset of many physical and mental illnesses, humor is also emerging as one of the most powerful medicines for chronic and degenerative conditions like dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cancer.
To gain the most physical and mental health benefits from humor, find things to laugh about several times a day. You can find humor everywhere if you look for things that make you laugh, like watching reruns of “Mash,” “Seinfeld” or “Cheers.” Be sure to associate with people who make you laugh.
Remember the adage, “You don’t stop laughing because you grow old. You grow old because you stop laughing” (Michael Pritchard).
Bill Clarke, former business executive, teacher and senior citizen, emerged from his third retirement to serve as the associate director of professional development for the archdiocesan Office of Formation and Discipleship. To send Bill your thoughts on this and other topics, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.